As India’s coronavirus pandemic burns out of control, the country’s government is cracking down — on social media. On Thursday, India’s government ordered Twitter to block more than 50 tweets that criticized how it has handled the pandemic. Twitter complied, preventing residents in the country from viewing the posts from people who include a state minister, an opposition member of the Indian Parliament, filmmakers, an actor, two journalists, and several ordinary people.
On Saturday, Twitter published details about the order to the Lumen database, a Harvard University project that keeps track of government takedown notices around the world. The news was first reported by Indian technology policy website Medianama.
“When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law. If the content violates Twitter’s Rules, the content will be removed from the service,” a Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction but not in violation of the Twitter Rules, we may withhold access to the content in India only.” The company said that it notified the people whose tweets it restricted in India ahead of time, telling them the company was responding to an order from the Indian government.
India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
One of the restricted tweets belongs to Moloy Ghatak, an All India Trinamool Congress Party minister from the state of West Bengal, where Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently held massive election rallies even as hundreds of thousands of Indians tested positive for COVID-19 daily.
Ghatak’s tweet criticized Modi for mismanaging the pandemic.
The government also restricted dozens of tweets that criticized Modi or shared pictures of India’s overflowing crematoriums and hospitals, in addition to a tweet from the Indian American Muslim Council, a Washington, DC–based advocacy organization of Indian American Muslims. That group shared a Vice story about the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu pilgrimage attended by hundreds of thousands of Indians earlier this month, which turned into a superspreader event.
“While hundreds of thousands of Covid patients are literally gasping for breath, the government’s alacrity in pressuring Twitter to block tweets critical of its handling of the crisis shows the administration’s moral compass continues to point in a direction that is shamelessly self-serving,” the IAMC said in a statement.
BuzzFeed News has reached out to Ghatak for comment.
Earlier this year, India’s coronavirus cases plummeted, and most parts of the country resumed normal life. At the beginning of March, India’s health minister said that the country was in the “endgame” of the pandemic. But the country is now in the throes of a second wave sparked by a new virus variant, religious gatherings, and election rallies. India currently has the highest number of daily infections in the world, and its healthcare system has collapsed. Medical oxygen is in short supply, ventilators are hard to find, and vaccines are running low. According to Johns Hopkins data, India had 346,786 new cases Friday and 2,624 deaths.
Despite the numbers, Modi has continued holding massive election rallies.
This isn’t the first time Twitter has complied with the Indian government’s orders to censor tweets. In February, the company blocked more than 250 accounts in India that criticized the government’s handling of protests by hundreds of thousands of farmers against new agricultural laws. The company subsequently struck a defiant note, unblocking accounts belonging to journalists, activists, and politicians, despite jail threats from the Indian government.